Science as a Contemporary Human Endeavor

Nov 24 2014

I entered formal study towards a degree in physics with both a desire to produce something of general practical value for human beings, as well as an admittedly spiritual motivation to better understand how the world of which I am a part works–whether I like how it works or not. As a graduate student, I took away from instruction that my “type,” which is apparently someone ultimately more concerned with the latter motivation, can’t cut the math. The idea of personal philosophical fulfillment, garnered along a course of scientific study, the primary thrust of that study being to produce results useful to other human beings for more than just a sense of philosophical comfort, seems to be suspect or distasteful to a significant contingent in the physics community.

I sat in classes on topics that were “so easy, even an English major” could follow them—having started my full-time undergraduate studies as an English student. Cracking a joke about “those damn engineers” is likely to get you a laugh in the physics department, and my honest assessment is that aspects of the professional humor really aren’t meant “that way,” truly. The engineers and mathematicians—and even the “English majors”—make the same essential jokes, except the English students have a better command of verbal irony. Sitting in those classes on subjects often popularly regarded as “impossible for a human being to understand,” such as quantum mechanics, the mystique of talking heads with I.Q.’s of over 9000 on the Discovery Channel assuring me of the existence of dark matter and dark energy started to dissolve.

Ultimately, maybe I’m the “failure.” I was the 13th admission in my entering class. Someone might say I “don’t truly understand the material at all,” I’m “new-age,” my GPA was 2.9-ish with a 3.0 required, and I ultimately dropped out. I quit without getting the piece of paper, so maybe I’m just the crack-pot that never was. My reasons for quitting were social ones, though, in my understanding, when I chose to leave a formal community of physicists who are just as human as any person working any day-job. When I weighed incentive against ideological compromise—yes, ideological compromise—I anticipated roles in which I suspected I could both do more for the people I share a planet with and be better personally fulfilled, while continuing to study physics.

I can’t speak as a doctor of physics. I can’t speak as even a “master” of physics. I can speak as someone who has always considered himself a self-motivated student. I can speak of myself as someone who took college level electives in philosophy, sociology, economics, and psychology before graduating high school. I can tell you that I’ve read Eliade, Marcuse, Einstein, Feynmann, Agrippa, the Tao Te Ching, the collected works of Carl Jung, Frost, Salinger, and I can continue to drop every name that highlights the fact that I don’t have the appellation “Ph.D.” attached to my name. I could list my standardized test scores (the good ones), my work credits, and I can continue to dig my hole straight to China, and all of this is perfectly meaningless and can be held against me. I leave it to your power of reasoning, as a human being with an intellect that I say is as sharp as any scientist’s, that appeals to authority status may mark but do not confer understanding and that the only measure of truth is direct evaluation of theoretical consistency and its empirical support.

Science is a day-job, with specialized knowledge being gained from daily immersion in the work in much the same way that work-specific knowledge is developed in any daily work routine. The scientific community is composed of average human beings operating in a contemporary historical context, with the same social, political, religious, and personal hang-ups as the general human population, except that we might have been encouraged differently and ultimately chose to specialize in the sciences. Compartmentalization of scientific work results in the same sorts of essentially bureaucratic weaknesses of oversight between scientists as between teams in private corporations. As in any line of work, there are social in-crowds and out-crowds, and open discourse is sometimes stifled by social anxiety, including the fear of losing respect in the eyes of people whom we would like to accept us as peers. It should stand to any person’s reason that an attempt at an objective study aiming to produce useful results for human beings can be hurt by the simple reality that scientists are human beings. That being said, “us scientists,” or “them scientists,” are typically as nice and well-meaning as typical human beings.

I love them, but it’s strange to see a lot of the graduate students I studied with interact with each other and professors in the department. Doctor Been-On-TV-With-Morgan-Freeman is such a “genius,” Doctor Studies-Dark-Matter-At-an-Ivy-League-School was such a “genius” when he took time to speak with us out of his busy schedule of saving the world with the power of science while secretly fighting crime at night, and I’m not even intelligent! I’m never gonna pass qual’s! (That’s what we call the test that “qual”-ifies a student to progress to doctoral study.) I don’t mean to embarrass anyone, but you don’t understand how often and how strongly I had to restrain the urge to hug my classsmates and try to tell them that it really isn’t like that at all, that they are wonderful human beings whose real value is still not encapsulated in the academic metrics. I wanted to scream lovingly at them that we’re still human beings on planet Earth flinging around the idea that we really nearly have the ULTIMATE-GRAND-UNIFIED-THEORY-OF-EVERYTHING-WITH-FIREWORKS-SHOOTING-OUT-OF-ITS-VERY-NAME this time, unlike every other moment in human history. It’s the same as when we couldn’t speak the holiest ultimate four-letter name of God that contained the essence of all that is. We have thought this exact same thing at every point in history, because it was the then-present time proceeding all human history up to that point, and not the previous second from which we had viewed all then-preceding human history a second earlier, nor the next second in human history from which we would be viewing all preceding human history, etc., etc., I love you. (“I get what you mean, but we really nearly have the complete physical theory at least, this time! You gotta hear Brian Greene and Michio Kaku talk about it on the Discovery Channel!” while, we can impress each other with qual problem answers over a beer, but we still can’t talk about quantum ontology even at the bar without someone calling “hippie bullshit.”)

As graduate students, I think we all project a greater or lesser degree of the image of talking heads on the Discovery Channel onto our professors, and we project the potential to become such talking heads disproportionately onto many of our classmates compared our self-assessments. Then, most of us pass hurdles. Some of the projection is dispelled while some of it is reversed onto others. Maybe it isn’t surprising that, with my long hair, occult tattoos, and (essentially atheistic) spiritual interest in physics—as oxymoronic as maybe I don’t seem, across the breadth of the department—I often anticipated the worst of this projection. I set myself up for it, and I so obfuscated my ability to assess this aspect of social reality between paranoia, apologeticism, and epistemological rationalization, that I ended up only knowing that it was healthier to extract myself from a situation I couldn’t analyze objectively. Graduate school is high-stress, isn’t it, folks? I’m not sure what you thought of me, but believe or not, I was pulling the 12 to 16 hour days as well, or did you folks work even harder? Could you empathize if I said I came away from certain work I did for grades thinking that I wasn’t always treated fairly, while I thought people cut me slack in other places? But that’s perfectly typical for a student, and it was water under the bridge, because I finally found an advisor I could work with, whom I still think is a great person and scientist. Then, I was asked to grade other students who were like myself and my graduate classmates, and I imploded.

There’s no great revelation, here. We’re still on planet Earth in the year 2012. Human beings are still talking about the theory of everything of the moment, the end of the world of the moment, the grave completely inexcusable injustices of their own particular sob-story but absolutely nobody else’s, etc., etc., and I just want to remind you that I love you.

I want to try to offer this idea to a community of my friends: constriction of the universe of discourse due to perfectly human social anxiety is the biggest impediment to our progress as human beings trying to understand our world.

No responses yet

Leave a Reply